I seldom waste time blogging about Newspaper editorials. I understand these people are paid to vomit through a keyboard. The less nuanced an opinion, the better the clickbait. But this Guardian series about whether Africa is or isn’t “rising” triggered my ire.
Eleven years ago I wrote a novel called The Devil’s Right Hand. In it two men go into the jungles of Sierra Leone on a manhunt to bring down a warlord who betrayed his people and helped Charles Taylor, enslaving child soldiers and lording over the maiming of a generation. Writing this fictional book helped me understand the nature of war and warlords, and the nuances behind taking sides. It also surprised me as Timboki (the warlord) turned out to be a lot more resourceful and wise than the men who sought him, and understood “magic” on a psycho-social level.
Much of this novel was lifted from headlines of the 1990s and from researching the Kamajors – a secret society of hunter mystics who believe they can turn bulletproof and invisible as they charge into battle. The Kamajors are not a fringe group, but more the heart of how half of Africa thinks. But Americans are no different. Half the world accepts science with one foot planted in superstition.
When faced with the ebola epidemic, it is natural for so many people to respond with superstitious cures or quack remedies. And these examples of rampant fears from The Guardian article illustrate the reaction I’d expect any society to have when half of the population doesn’t fully embrace science:
A Cameroonian friend shares a conversation between two of his fellow nationals in an airport. One of them remarks that he is not feeling too well. The immediate, and hysterical, reaction of the other is that he must have Ebola.
“Maybe you’ve been infected with Ebola from those Lagos passengers at the arrival hall,” my friends recounts one of them saying.
On Twitter, a Kenyan user notes that passengers on flights from Entebbe to Nairobi are not being screened for Ebola. The checks are inconsistent, he notes, implying that the disease could be brought in to the nation via Uganda.
Last week, a hoax did the rounds on Whatsapp as Zimbabweans shared a Photoshopped version of a local newspaper with a headline claiming that the country had confirmed its first Ebola patients.
Their mistake it to explain it as an African problem. It is not. Their interpretation:
Over the last few years, meticulous work has gone into crafting the ‘Africa rising’ narrative; a narrative founded upon the continent’s rising economies (like South Africa and Nigeria), the emergence of tech and innovation (think Kenya) and the growth of a middle class that we might call ‘post-African’; savvy, urban, cosmopolitan with no flies to swat off their faces and no begging bowls in their manicured hands.
In a May editorial, David Brooks of the New York Times wrote about ‘The Real Africa’ in which he cited various economic measures – trade and mobile phone growth among others – to show why Africa has become “the test case of 21st-century modernity”.
The problem I have always had with this narrative is that while the statistics do point to a truth, another truth still prevails.
What’s missing from this two sided debate (is Africa rising or is it just a hopeful myth?) is the nuance that economic prosperity is happening despite another reality remaining entirely unchanged: Ever since the 1960s there has been a small group of African elites that hoard power and money and live above the law. This is the kleptocracy culture Nigeria is famous for. Recently the masses have gotten a larger share of the prosperity than they did before (good!), but without these elites having to let go of their privileges.
When the rule of law doesn’t apply to you as en elite, why should a quarantine? The ebola epidemic is spreading because in case after case, of one these elites break quarantine, leave the country and hide from the health system. In the process they infect 60 others. Ebola will continue to get a foothold wherever the masses have low mobility and limited power and elite doctors and government officials can breaks the rules with impunity.
This is the pattern. Ghana is entirely ebola free and Nigeria is not. Sierra Leone and Liberia spiral out of control while Guinea and Senegal doesn’t. Check the corruption indexes on these places and you’ll find it fits my narrative. And so in the rewrite of my novel The Devil’s Right Hand,the ebola epidemic continues to spread wherever elitism is rampant, making Nigeria ungovernable six months after the outbreak there and leaving Ghana unaffected.
So the question of Africa Rising misses the point. The debate should be about where in Africa is elitism and a two-class society entrenched and where is it going the way of Apartheid and segregation? Prosperity will follow wherever citizen masses wake up and realize that corruption (and the culture it creates) are disarming the quarantine meant to protect them all. Quarantines cannot work amidst corruption.
What took me 11 years of mulling on this novel was on how to tell a story about the crumbling of society under war without trivializing the people into caricatures of Africa. Here are some parts of telling the story that helped to avoid caricatures:
- One of the foreigners in the novel plays the ugly American, using “African” and Sierra Leonian interchangably (as newspapers do, sadly).
- In this mystery-suspense thriller, the African characters and the foreigners seem equally witty, devious, and resourceful.
- The ebola quarantine story provides a perfect foil to show how power held by anyone – white or black – can endanger all of society when abused. It becomes a story about the destructive nature of people against nature, set in Africa, instead of being about the destructive nature of Africans against each other (the usual way conflicts are framed by news media). Understanding Africa as a “man vs (human) nature” conflict is richer and more accurate than seeing events as a “man vs man” conflict.
- Part of the novel was already about the nature of magic in modern society. Juxtaposing it with a battle of modern medicine against nature provides a stronger contrast to sharpen the insights between the lines of dialogue here.
I’ll be kindle publishing my novel at the end of this month, with a new parallel narrative of how the ebola outbreak foments a new warlord rising as the rule of law disappears from rural areas. Page 1 now describes the chaos that ensures when the WHO imposes a quarantine around Sierra Leone, Liberia, and southern Guinea (a bad idea, but great fiction).